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I didn’t really start this week with the idea of talking about finding mentors (and in one case, going in the exact opposite direction), but since we’re here, I thought I’d close the week talking about my mentor in the game of football, John Paul Young.

I met John Paul in the summer of 2002. At the time, I was a low-level writer/editor at the Houston Chronicle, and I had heard of a football clinic that took place every June in San Angelo, Texas, called Angelo Football Clinic. It was one of the best-kept secrets in football, even in Texas. San Angelo, like most of West Texas, is a pretty remote place, but coaches came from all around (some as far north as Minnesota) to come hear the lineup of coaches who would come in and speak for 90 minutes about the nuances of the game, then retreat to a classroom afterwards to answer questions for hours afterwards. Name a notable head coach in college or pro football over the last 30 years, from Bill Walsh to Nick Saban, and he’s spoken at Angelo Clinic.

Anyway, I made my way to west Texas that year knowing I would launch ITL in a few short months, and I was looking to make contacts. As someone with a black-and-gold heart shaped like a fleur-de-lis, I felt John Paul, one of the clinic’s founders, would make a great one. He’d been Bum Phillips’ right-hand man at nearly every coaching stop, from the Luv Ya Blue days with the Oilers to the frustrating seasons with the Saints. Then, following Bum’s retirement, he’d coached with Bum’s son, Wade, in Denver, as well as Kansas City. He was a coaching veteran and a man I knew would have a thousand stories. There was one problem: he had no idea who Neil Stratton was and absolutely no reason to care.

After hanging around for three days with few connections, I’d arrived at the last day of the clinic. Poised to leave within hours, I happened upon John Paul in a small group of other coaches, laughing and telling stories. I could tell he was busy, but I knew it was now-or-never time, so I approached him, interrupting him mid-conversation, and introduced myself as a guy from the Houston Chronicle who was in town seeking stories about the clinic.

Instead of brushing me off with a “not now, son,” he greeted me warmly. and we exchanged a few friendly words as we traded business cards. Sensitive to taking too much of his time, I awkwardly thanked him and excused myself, then got back on the road. I’d been traveling about three hours when my phone rang. To my shock, it was John Paul. “You never gave me chance to tell you more about the clinic,” he said, and we launched into a lengthy conversation about the history of the clinic, that year’s speaker lineup, his time with the Saints and Oilers, and a number of other topics. From there, we forged a friendship that is entering its second decade, and helped launch Inside the League as well as a number of other projects.

One of them is Champions Search Firm, the company we work with in helping high schools across Texas fill their athletic vacancies, especially at the head coach/AD position. As two of the firm’s six partners, we help good coaches find good situations leading young men on the football field and in life. In my capacity as a Champions partner, I’ll be among the speakers at Angelo Clinic next week alongside Lane Kiffin, Wade Phillips and other recognizable football names. It’ll be a true career highlight for me, but there’s really only reason it’s happening, and it’s because John Paul was willing to help a young man who was eager, respectful and most of all, grateful for his help.

But this story is more than just a sweet reminiscence. If you’re hoping to fight your way to the top of the football world, I encourage you to do what I did. Take a chance and go to out-of-the-way places. Be willing to put yourself in front of influential people, even if you don’t have a clear plan on what to say when you get there. In short, go for it and be aggressive about creating opportunities, but cultivate the relationships around you once you create them.

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